One of the most frequent questions an author gets at appearances is "So, what's your next book about?" And probably nothing terrifies us more, and leads to more umms and ahhs and clearings of throats. Because more often than not, we don't know.
It's a rare person who can leave one book and jump immediately into another. I know people who can do it, but mostly I don't like them very much. In the words of Anne Lamott, I don't think they have a rich inner life, or that God likes them or can even stand them. (She sounds a lot less bitchy/a lot more funny saying that than I do, but the sentiment is the same.)
Six months after the pub date of my second novel (and ten months after finishing the draft--they just whipped that thing into print), I'm not sure what I'm going to do next. I have ideas, sure. I have buckets of ideas. But which is the right one? Which is the one that will work best, that will follow best my other two books, that won't be completely out of left field or make people say "What was she thinking?"
Should I do the contemporary marriage drama? The slightly futuristic young narrator? The completely wacked-out magic realism? A spy thriller? Heroic fantasy? What?
What will allow me to continue to have a writing career in this shocking and strange new publishing world?
Which idea am I ready for? Which is ready for me?
I hate this in-between time, the time between novels. When I'm well into a novel, when I'm sure what I'm doing and have got over this initial uncertainty, I can write four, five hours a day without stopping and get usually 1500 words at a time, or about five pages. I love when a novel is well-established and cranking along; I love knowing each day what I'm going to be working on, and coming back to the world I've made is like settling into a comfortable chair. I take a breath, read over what I did the day before, and I'm off.
What I don't like are the wobbly first pages, the tense decision-making that leads to first one idea coming to the forefront, then another, then another still. I doodle and futz. I create characters I love one day only to shrink from them the next. I may write 200 words that seem brilliant one day only to cut them all the next.
This stage can go on for months. After Icebergs, it was years. More than four years, in fact, while I doodled and futzed and fumed and threw away nearly everything I wrote.
Of course I also started my teaching career during those years, and moved to a new city, and had a baby. It wasn't like I wasn't working. I was working all the time, in fact. It's just that the work wasn't always leading somewhere.
Frank Conroy, who was the director of the Iowa Writers' Workshop while I was a student there, used to call this stage "meditating on the text." It doesn't look like work, because you're not getting a lot on the page. But it is work. It's important work, in fact, and I know now, from experience that eventually it will lead me somewhere. I will write another book, some more stories. I can trust that these in-between days will come to an end, eventually.
But if I seem cranky and distracted, it's because I haven't found the answer to the question yet. It's there, waiting.
I know--the James Patterson ripoff. Right? RIGHT???